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Conserving West Coast Leatherbacks

Read the Bay Crossings story below, or go to the website here.

The endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle swims 6,000 miles across the pacific from distant nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed off the west coast of the United States during summer and fall. Photos by Deasy Lontoh (below) and Mark Cotter (above).

By Teri Shore
Just outside the Golden Gate, critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles are now gorging themselves on jellyfish. These mysterious ocean dwellers swim 6,000 miles across the Pacific from distant nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed here during summer and fall. More than 20 sightings have been recorded by sailors and whale watchers along the West Coast this year.
Because of the importance of these coastal feeding areas to the rare marine species, the federal government on November 15 plans to designate more than 70,600 square miles of ocean as protected critical habitat for these sea turtles along the California, Oregon and Washington coasts. Doing so will establish the first and largest protected areas for sea turtles ever designated in continental U.S. ocean waters under the Endangered Species Act.
“Few people know about the leatherbacks along our coast,” said Todd Steiner, executive director at Seaturtles.org, the Marin-based marine conservation group that won the new leatherback habitat protections. “In fact, it’s only been in the last decade that sea turtle biologists began tracking the movement of these giant reptiles across the Pacific.”
The largest of all sea turtles, leatherbacks can grow to be nine feet long and weigh as much as 1,200 pounds. They are unique among sea turtles because their backs are covered in leathery ridges instead of hard shells. Their 12,000-mile round-trip journey from nesting beaches to our coast is the longest known migration of any living marine reptile. While foraging along the California coast, they eat 20 percent to 30 percent of their body weight per day—as many as 50 large brown nettle jellyfish.
During their journey, leatherbacks run a gauntlet of threats across the Pacific, including capture in commercial fishing gear—particularly swordfish fisheries that use longlines and gillnet—ingestion of plastics, poaching, global warming and ocean acidification. Protection of their foraging habitats and migratory corridors is essential to the recovery of this imperiled species.
Pacific leatherback sea turtles have declined more than 95 percent since the 1980s; as few as 2,300 adult female western Pacific leatherbacks remain. The species dates from the time of the dinosaurs, having survived for 100 million years virtually unchanged; now their kind risks disappearing from the planet.
The government action to protect leatherback habitat along the West Coast dates back to a 2007 legal petition to protect key migratory and foraging habitat for these ancient turtles filed by SeaTurtles.org, the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, and Washington D.C.-based Oceana. After numerous delays and lawsuits, the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to make it final on November 15. However, conservationists are now concerned that the Obama administration will seek further delay in these urgently needed protections. A similar last-minute delay halted new endangered protections for loggerhead sea turtles on the Atlantic coast. Instead, it seems a Congressional letter prompted by seafood lobbyists trumped the Endangered Species Act.
“Protecting the cool, nutrient-rich feeding grounds off the West Coast, and the pathways that lead to them, is crucial to ensuring leatherbacks’ survival,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, which represented TIRN and other groups in petitions and legal actions to gain the critical habitat protections. “The habitat protections will also benefit other marine species that depend on healthy Pacific waters—including whales, sharks and seabirds.”
In a local citizen science program designed to help enhance recovery prospects for Pacific leatherbacks, last year SeaTurtles.org launched the Leatherback Watch Program to engage charter vessels, recreational sailors, whale watchers and marine researchers to compile, record and communicate sightings of Pacific leatherbacks off the West Coast.
The Leatherback Watch Program recorded over twenty sightings in 2011 from Point Sur, California up to British Columbia, Canada. Visitors onboard with the Blue Ocean Whale Watching in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Oceanic Society in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary have scored the most sightings this summer.
“Seeing this rare sea turtle was the highlight of our day and taking part in the voluntary Leatherback Watch Program transformed our lucky sighting into another data point in the ongoing conservation work of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project,” said Captain Larry Twomey, calling from his yacht offshore of Monterey.
“The best way to monitor a species is to collaborate with others and create a network,” said Kate Cummings from Blue Ocean Whale Watch based in Moss Landing. “The Leatherback Watch Program is doing just that—getting the public involved to better understand the movements and habits of the endangered leatherback turtles to aide in conservation.”
To learn more about California’s sea turtles, the Leatherback Watch Program and how you can support protection of endangered sea turtles and the ocean, go to www.seaturtles.org or join these upcoming public events:
Pacific Sea Turtles and the Great Leatherback Migration, Wednesday, November 16 7 p.m. – 8:45 p.m. in Sonoma.
Join us for a journey into the secret lives of sea turtles from the Sonoma Coast to the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica on Wednesday, November 16, Sonoma Birding Nature Lecture Series, Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building, 126 First St. West, Sonoma CA. 95476. $5 donation at the door.
Friday, November 11, 8 p.m. Free event: Cocos Island Marine Preserve: a Unique Citizen Science Program for Sea Turtle and Shark Conservation, Underwater Photographer’s Society, 450 Chadbourne Avenue, Millbrae, CA

Teri Shore is Program Director at Seaturtles.org, an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 55,000 members and online activists work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world. For more information, visit www.seaturtles.org.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org